Pennyworth gives us Alfred as you’ve never seen him before — young, suave, and incredibly badass.
I’ll be the first to admit that Pennyworth, a new EPIX series about the younger version of the world’s most famous butler, is a show that initially flew under my radar.
Of course, I wasn’t opposed to it. In fact, since it’s a DC property, I basically supported it on principle — supported, but wasn’t really hyped about it.
That’s definitely not the case now.
This weekend, I watched the pilot of the upcoming season and had a chance to interview the fantastic cast and writers of the show. What was once a show that I only supported on principle is now one of my most anticipated upcoming shows.
I was very impressed with the pilot, which sets the show up as a sort of 1960s spy thriller with a little bit of noir and little bit of camp thrown in. It’s a show wholly interested in fleshing out its own world and lore — unburdened by the baggage of established canon or forced easter eggs — and succeeds in drawing us into a fantastical, slightly (deliberately) anachronistic, alternative version of London.
Jack Bannon does an absolutely fantastic job, and plays the titular role with all the English charm and dry wit you’d expect from a young Alfred Pennyworth — with just enough fighting and gun play thrown in to make you believe that he’s someone who could one day help shape the boy who will one day become Batman.
It is a show that I’ll describe as an utterly delightful surprise, one that would absolutely make subscribing to EPIX worth it.
Here are the 4 most interesting takeaways we learned about Pennyworth from watching the pilot and talking with Jack Bannon, who played Alfred Pennyworth; Ben Aldridge, who plays Thomas Wayne; Paloma Faith, who plays Bet Sykes; and writer/executive producers (and Gotham alum) Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon.
‘Pennyworth’ is focused on creating its own world within the DC universe
Bruno Heller and Danny Cannon, who worked together on Gotham, must’ve found working on Pennyworth to be a kind of freedom. While Batman’s story and canon has been rigidly defined over the course of his 80-year history, Alfred’s has been given to us in only bits and pieces and mostly been left to up to our own interpretation.
Which means that when they set out to create the world, Heller and Cannon wren’t focused on figuring out when and how it would fit into the broader, often wildly convoluted DC timeline, but instead on crafting the best possible world and story for their character.
While Danny Cannon spoke about being inspired by comic books in general and being a fan of Batman comics in particular, he didn’t point to any one specific storyline that influenced the show — something that star Jack Bannon likewise echoed.
Bannon said his biggest reference for his character was the script itself, while Cannon and Heller both described their desire to tell a story around the central question of “Who is Alfred Pennyworth as an individual?” as opposed to “Who is Alfred Pennyworth as Batman’s butler?” Their desire, above all, is to take the world seriously.
However, don’t think that means that there’ll be no easter eggs — they’ll just be incredibly subtle ones. In the words of Bruno Heller, “the more subtle the easter eggs, the better. The easter eggs that we will have will be ones that only people deep into the world will understand, as opposed to the more obvious winks to the audience.”
This version of Alfred Pennyworth owes a lot of thanks to Michael Caine
Titular star Jack Bannon and writers/executive producers Danny Cannon and Bruno Heller mentioned Michael Caine as an influence for this version of Alfred in Pennyworth.
They credit Michael Caine not only for his performance as the dry witted butler in the Christopher Nolan trilogies, but for being responsible for pushing Alfred’s background as an SAS soldier to the forefront of the character.
Pennyworth features that aspect of Alfred’s history prominently, with the pilot immediately depicting war torn scenes that still haunt Alfred in his dream. Likewise, when speaking about the arc of Alfred’s character in Pennyworth, writer Bruno Heller stated that answering the question of “how does someone who was a brave man of action — an SAS soldier — become a butler?” was the essence of portraying Alfred’s journey.
Likewise, after telling us that “this Alfred’s got swag,” star Jack Bannon went on to mention Michael Caine as being heavily influential for his performance as — in his words — “the man before the butler.” And not just Caine’s work as Alfred — though obviously that too, as Bannon seems to adopt a Michael Caine-esque way of speaking in the show — but just his work in general.
Bannon described Caine as “the film star of the 60’s” and said that because Caine encapsulated that era so completely, he actually ended up watching a lot of Michael Caine films in preparation for the role and the show.
The show will heavily feature Thomas Wayne as Alfred’s reluctant ally
As much as the show is determined to focus on Alfred’s journey, it also recognizes that Alfred and the Wayne family are inextricably linked to one another.
While the older Alfred will one day serve as mentor, trainer, doctor and father-figure to the Caped Crusader, young Alfred’s relationship with Bruce Wayne’s father, Thomas Wayne, is decidedly less warm and fuzzy.
The two have a chance meeting at a club where Alfred works as security detail (basically a glorified bouncer), and then a deliberate meeting later on when Thomas Wayne is used as leverage against Alfred when his girlfriend is kidnapped. Their differences — in nationality, in upbringing, and social class — make for an initial relationship that Jack Bannon describes as “two tigers circling each other, trying to figure one another out.”
Ben Aldridge, who plays Thomas Wayne, gave a similar description of their relationship, saying that “It’s not Starsky and Hutch, they’re very wary of each other.”
However, their personal feelings aside, they both recognize that the other has something which they both need. Thomas Wayne has the money and status which Alfred needs to get his private security business off the ground, while Thomas Wayne — in Jack Bannon’s words — is a wimp who needs Alfred’s army skills to save the day.
However, both actors described their characters are sharing a very strong moral center, something that engenders respect from each for the other man. And while the two may not be friends now, given the way we know their story goes in the comics, it’s safe to say that their journey will be in appreciating one other as people and not just as assets.
The show is VERY English
The show makes good use of its cinematography (and on location budget) to make sure it always includes the most iconic landmarks and skylines of London, with Bruno Heller describing London as its own character in the story.
Likewise, Danny Cannon spoke about his inspiration for the show’s villains — drawing not from the established rogues gallery of Batman (who are obviously unavailable because they are not yet alive), but from British history. Because this was a slightly alternative DC reality of London, it gave them the opportunity to ask “what happened to Jack the Ripper, what happened to Jekyll and Hyde, who’s Dick Turpin here?”
When they started to realized how many historical and mythological characters from British history were available to them, they were able to create a very interesting and new cast of villains for Alfred to face in
Just as Bruce Wayne lives, breathes, sleeps and is largely defined by his relationship to Gotham City, so it goes with Alfred and London.